“No, they can’t be pregnant,” she tells him.
“Because they would both have sperm cells? No egg cells.”
Huggins is trained to teach age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education. But she only has an hour with these students — and that’s enough time to cover basics like puberty and reproduction.
When most people think of sex ed, those lessons often come to mind. but extensive Sex ed transcends that. It is defined by sex ed advocates as a science-based, culturally and age-appropriate set of lessons that begin in the early grades and continue through high school. It covers sexuality, human development, sexual orientation and gender, bodily autonomy and consent, as well as relationship skills and media literacy.
With abortion access changing in many states, advocates for comprehensive sex education say it’s more important than ever. But, like many things related to school, sexuality education is highly politicized.
Only three states require age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education to be taught in schools: Washington, California, and Oregon. That’s according to SEICUS, a group that advocates for progressive sex education policies. In other states, what students learn about sex ed depends on what school leaders choose to teach.
And yet, research shows that these lessons can lead to better health outcomes for students.
“The main findings of the study are that comprehensive sexuality education across grades, embedded in supportive school environments and across subjects, can improve sexual, social and emotional health as well as academic outcomes for youth,” said Eva Goldfarb, a researcher at Montclair State University in New Jersey. He co-authored a 2020 paper on the subject.
“While sex education may seem controversial, it’s not at all,” says Nora Gelperin, director of sexuality education and training at Advocates for Youth — an organization that promotes access to comprehensive sex education.
He said widespread sex ED is “always in the best interest of young people.”
Here’s what it looks like for different age levels from grades K-12:
Elementary school: Consent, personal boundaries, and healthy relationships
Age-appropriate Sex ED for Kindergarteners introduces topics such as consent, identifying who’s in your family, and correct names for body parts.
“When we’re talking about consent with kindergartners, that means getting permission before you touch someone else; asking if it’s okay to borrow someone’s toy or pencil or game, so kids really start to learn about personal boundaries and consent at that age—and developmentally appropriate ways,” said Gelperin, who was part of a team that released the first national sexuality education standards in 2012.
Gelperin likes to use hula hoops to teach young children about physical autonomy: Each student gets one, and is instructed to ask someone else’s permission to get inside the hula hoop. Hoops are an analogy for borders.
“If someone touches you within your boundaries in a way that makes you uncomfortable, it’s okay to say no and talk to a trusted adult,” Gelperin told the students.
Another good lesson for young children is how to identify Those who are trusted adults. Mariota Gary-Smith, a sex ed instructor based in Oregon, asks students to write down a list of people they trust in their community: “People you know care about you, people who are accessible to you, who can support you.”
The list may include co-workers, immediate and extended family members, or selected family members. Then Gary-Smith, who co-founded the Women of Color Sexual Health Network, asked students to think about how they would talk to the people on their list about safety, respect, and boundaries.
“When they knew they had trust and safety in their circle, they felt they could express themselves without judgment,” she explains.
As students move into third grade, Gelperin says they should begin learning the characteristics of healthy relationships with friends and family.
“Sometimes there’s teasing and bullying going on in those grade levels. So you want to talk about how to stop teasing and bullying and how to stand up for others who might be teased or bullied,” she explains.
Attention should also be paid to respecting the differences of others with different family makeups, cultural backgrounds and faith traditions.
Gelperin says lessons on consent should continue throughout elementary school. And she recommends starting puberty lessons in fourth grade, because that’s when some students begin to see and feel changes in their bodies.
Middle School: The Real Thing About Puberty
As students transition from elementary school to middle school, they should learn the details of reproduction, including biological terms and why some people menstruate and others produce sperm.
“That’s a real feature of middle school sex education for me, is really starting to understand how those parts and systems work together for reproduction,” Gelperin said.
This is a good time to connect the physical effects of puberty and hormones with the feelings of attraction that come with them.
“Who gives you butterflies in your stomach? Who makes your palms sweat?” Gelperin said. “Because we know with puberty, one of the changes is experiencing new hormones that often make us feel attracted to other people in new and different ways.”
Students should also learn about sexually transmitted infections such as HIV and how they are transmitted.
And middle school is a good time to start learning about gender expression and sexual orientation, as well as gender stereotypes. One Advocates for Youth lessons include a scavenger hunt homework assignment in which students look for gender stereotypes in the world around them, such as a sports ad that features only men or a cleaning supply ad that features only women.
High School: When conversations about healthy relationships deepen
Healthy relationships are a “hallmark” of comprehensive sex education, Gelperin says. As students move into high school, the conversation should expand from family and friends to partners and intimate relationships.
“What makes a relationship healthy? How do you know if a relationship isn’t healthy?” Gelperin said.
That conversation should also cover sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual harassment.
At Mountainside High School in Beaverton, Ore., school health teacher Jane Hicks shares with students statistics on disproportionate rates of sexual violence for women, women of color and members of the LGBTQ community.
“Sexual violence can happen to anyone,” she tells her class, “but it doesn’t happen to everyone equally.”
This leads to a conversation about consent.
“We need to talk about how we treat each other, why consent is so important and why we need to listen to each other and protect each other,” Hicks said. “Once again, violence is used as a form of control to make groups of people look powerless and intimidated.”
And then, of course, the classic lesson in high school sex ed, about pregnancy, how to prevent sexually transmitted infections and how to use contraception – a lesson called Gelperin is especially important.
“We can’t expect young people to know how to use condoms properly unless we help them learn how to do so.”
A classic method: bananas. Specifically, getting students to practice putting a condom on a banana, as an Advocate for Youth lesson suggests.
Finally, there are lessons that have nothing to do with sex (or fruit) — like how to find reliable sources of information.
Think of all the rumors that can spread about sex in high school – those rumors are all over the internet, too. And for a kid looking for information, it can be hard to know what to believe.
“We’re letting kids learn what’s there, and they’re there,” says Lisa Lieberman, a sex ed researcher at Montclair State University who co-authored the paper. “They’re accessing pornography; they’re accessing the Internet. They’re learning in a way that’s not the message that most parents and schools want kids to get.”
Advocates for youth recommend asking students to evaluate different sexual health websites and identify the ones that are trustworthy.
For Hicks, the goal of all of this is to give every student the tools they need to stay safe.
“It’s recognizing everyone in the house and giving them the knowledge and skills to make the best possible decisions for themselves and live a happy, fulfilling life.”
Sex ed recommendations are always evolving
Mariota Gary-Smith, with the Women of Color Sexual Health Network, said sex education 10 years ago was not culturally reflective or respectful of all, including communities of color.
“The images that are used, that have been used historically … you don’t see bodies that aren’t white, able-bodied, cis, thin, thin,” she explains. “You don’t see or hear about young people who choose parenthood when they’re pregnant. You hear about teen pregnancy because this thing should be stopped, but there are cultures and communities where young people are celebrated for becoming parents.”
Gary-Smith helped create more inclusive texts through the Women of Color Sexual Health Network, and the sex ed standards Gelperin helped create in 2012 were updated in 2020 to include racism, inequality, and their impact on sexual health. An advocate for youth reading points students to examples of how racism has affected the health and reproductive rights of low-income women, among other groups.
National sex ed standards were also updated to touch on gender identity, sexual orientation, reproductive justice and sexually explicit media.
“It really allowed us to reflect on the times of 2020 and what young people were saying was their lived experience that they were so hungry to learn and talk about,” Gelperin said.
Making sexuality inclusive and culturally reflective means teaching about systemic oppression, discrimination and the effects of history and racism, explains Gary-Smith. For example, a lesson on reproductive health might discuss historical examples of forced sterilization of Indigenous women or black women or the criminal justice system as it relates to family relationships.
These lessons may seem far removed from consent or sex, and Gary-Smith understands that.
“Everything I’m talking about now, 10 years ago, we weren’t talking about it,” she explains.
This highlights one of the most important features of Gary-Smith’s sex education: it should always be evolving.
“It needs to change and change because things change and change.”